Global CO2 emissions and inequality

Further to today’s release on ecological footprint by income decile for Canada, Stephen Pacala of Princeton has done some calculations on who is most to blame internationally for CO2 emissions (conference speech and presentation available here). An excerpt:

All 3 billion of the lowest emitting people emit a total, all together, of a half a billion metric tons of CO2.  The 3 billion poorest people is who these are, and they emit essentially nothing. … In other words, the development of the desperately poor is not in conflict with solving the climate problem, which is a problem of the very rich.  This is very, very important to understand.

In contrast, the rich are really spectacular emitters.  I should say also that the numbers at the bottom are the slopes of this cumulative emission curve and they’re the individual emissions of those particular points where the red arrows are.  Now the black arrow shows that the top 500 million people emit half the greenhouse emissions.  These people are really rich by global standards.  Every single one of them earns more than the average American and they also occur in all the countries of the world.  There are Chinese and Americans and Europeans and Japanese and Indians all in this group.

… Lets suppose there’s a limit placed on individual emissions.  Anybody under the limit is free to emit what they want, anybody over the limit is supposed to reduce down to the … limits that would be required to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at 450 parts per million. … The limit falls from about five tons of carbon per person to about one over a 50-year period. But what is interesting is that the earnings of a person at the threshold throughout that entire period (the period in this case is 2007–2030) are between $30,000 and $40,000.  So these people are all wealthy by international standards.  The poor never run afoul of the green line.  In fact, the middle class almost doesn’t run afoul of the green line.


  • My understanding was the goal needs to be 350 parts per million. I wonder what this does for the numbers. Interesting that the ones with all the money will no longer be able to spend it to pollute.

  • Great post. Reminds me of a Gwynne Dyer piece in which he forecast carbon rationing as the only practical way of curbing GHG emissions at the individual level in the developed world. Everybody gets a quota, rich or poor, and you live with it. It’s what we do in times of dire national emergency, such as wars. Dyer thinks we’ll get to a carbon rationing system eventually, out of necessity, because we’ll never be willing to collectively accept meaningful, voluntary measures. He might just be right.

  • Of course when you consider that GHG emissions are particularly long lived, it becomes clear that historic emissions are the greatest cause of today’s warming. This means that the US is responsible roughly three time the GHG emissions currently in the atmosphere as China, and a full order of magnitude more responsible if one looks at per-capita emissions.


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